Don't rush reform of Minnesota sex offender program

  • Article by: NICK ZERWAS and TARA MACK
  • Updated: June 11, 2013 - 7:45 PM

Bipartisan support depends on both parties getting to play a role in shaping new policies.

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Treatment facility in St. Peter where some of those who have been civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) are held.

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The Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) is essential for public safety, and should be continually studied for possible improvements. But the haphazard, unilateral manner in which “reforms” were presented this year by the Democrat-controlled Minnesota House majority was not the responsible or fair way to restructure a hugely controversial program.

In a recent Star Tribune editorial (“Dereliction of duty on sex offenders,” June 5), the editorial board criticized minority House Republicans for participating in political “gamesmanship” during committee hearings, somehow acting, within our limited capacity, as obstructionists to real change.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The MSOP “reform” bill authored by Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, passed through only two committees. On each stop, the author offered a last-minute, delete-everything amendment that altered the entire substance of the bill. This process did not allow adequate opportunity to fully study and understand the public safety implications of such significant changes to the program.

It is fair to point out that the proposed legislation called for the establishment of community homes for redirected dangerous offenders in communities throughout the state, which were originally called less restrictive alternatives to civil commitment. The name of these facilities was changed to “strict and intensive supervision,” but the end result was that people who may be civilly committed would be redirected to one of these community homes rather than going into MSOP.

Those of us in committee had virtually no time to thoughtfully review the new bill language. Moreover, no House member could adequately articulate or define the substantial changes to the MSOP laws, such as: Where would these community homes be located? What security would these homes provide to ensure public safety? What would be the process for evaluating these dangerous sex offenders? What protocols would be in place for monitoring these predatory offenders in our community? With these questions left unanswered, it would have been irresponsible to move forward with these significant changes.

We legislators should be cautious and measured and review every detail of any changes to MSOP. Minnesotans deserved better than a rushed, undefined bill on such an important public safety issue during the waning days of the legislative session.

That is why Republican members requested roll-call votes on the bill — not as an act of “gamesmanship,” but owing to a lack of definition and clarity on numerous key provisions. Our hope with these procedural actions was that the author would reach across the aisle and work with us on real, sustainable improvements to the program. Instead, the bill was pushed forward through two committees, where it was eventually stalled and prevented from being heard on the floor by Speaker Paul Thissen — not due to political gamesmanship, as the editorial claimed.

If there are to be true and thoughtful improvements to MSOP, it will not be done in the manner pursued by the Democrat majority this year. Rather, all voices and options must be considered, such as increased prison sentences rather than indefinite treatment. Democrats need to include Republicans in the formulation of this key legislation if they want to achieve bipartisan support. The process must be open and transparent and allow for the Legislature to have a full understanding of how policy decisions made in St. Paul will affect communities throughout the state.

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Nick Zerwas, Elk River, and Tara Mack, Apple Valley, are Republican representatives in the Minnesota House.

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